Plato was an Ancient Greek philosopher whose writings and theories have greatly influenced the development of Western philosophy. Perhaps his most famous theory is that of the Forms – pure ideas or concepts of what a THING is. It was Plato’s belief that as well as this world, the material world – or the world of Appearances, as he called it – there exists another dimension, where the true Forms of everything in the material world reside; Reality, or the realm of the Forms. A Form, by Plato’s reckoning, is eternal, perfect and unchanging, unlike the images or shadows of Forms that we see in the world of Appearances.
In the material world, nothing is perfect, everything changes and eventually everything dies. However, Plato was a dualist, so he believed that as well as our mortal body we also have an immortal soul which existed before and will exist after our time in this world of appearances. The place where our souls resided before we were born and will return to when we die is the realm of the Forms. This, according to Plato explains why we have an innate (though dim) recollection of what Forms are, and why we can recognize things like beauty and justice without being taught.
Plato believed that the true philosopher was the one who knew about the Forms and was trying to appreciate and understand the Form of the Good. The Form of the Good is the highest in Plato’s hierarchy of Forms, the highest reality. It is the source and the unity of all the other Forms, and illuminates them so that if one has understanding of the Form of the Good, they have understanding of all the Forms. In Plato’s analogy of the Cave, the Good is represented by the Sun, which is the source of all the objects that the escaped prisoner finds above ground. The Sun makes all the things above ground visible, just like the Form of the Good makes all the other Forms understandable.
The Analogy of the Sun by Plato tells us more about the Form of the Good. Plato believed that sight was the “most noble” of the five senses, because the other four require only two things, a sensor and a sensed (eg. an ear and a sound, a nose and a smell). Sight, however, requires three: an eye, a thing to be seen and the sun to provide light and make it possible for the eye to see it. Plato likens sight to reason; reason requires somebody to understand/to be enlightened, a thing to understand, and the Good to make it possible to understand it. The Form of the Good cannot ever be wholly present in the world of Appearances; however it can, like the other Forms, be reflected in a variety of ways.
This, Plato argues, is the reason why we can call so many different things “good” – because they all correspond to the true reality of goodness at least in part. A cake can be called “good” if it satisfies someone’s hunger and pleases their taste buds; a chair can be called “good” if it is comfortable and doesn’t break when you sit on it; a person can be called “good” if they are kind to others, or if they volunteer in developing countries.
But the Form of Good is all of these things, and more than all of these things, says Plato, and because all the Forms come from the Form of Good, every time Truth or Beauty or Justice is reflected in the world of Appearances, Good is being reflected too. Some people think that Plato’s theory of the Form of the Good doesn’t work, because, they argue, around the world and through the ages there are different concepts and understandings of what it means to be good or what a good thing is, so there cannot possibly be a perfect singular Good to which all these different actions and people agree with. These people are known as moral relativists and they do not believe there is absolute morality, rather one must decide what is right and wrong from the particular situation they are in.
For example, in some cultures, it is never a good thing to take a life, even if that person has done terrible things including taking lives themselves. However, in other cultures, if the person has done terrible things society will agree that they should be executed for the good of the rest of society and to protect them from future crimes that the person could commit in the future. Plato was a moral absolutist, someone who does believe in a total, unchanging good. Moral absolutists would argue that just because not every culture recognizes the true goodness for what it is, that doesn’t make it any less good.
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